By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
VANCOUVER, Wash. – Tony Curtis, owner of Current Home Technologies, is in the enviable position of having a business that grew during the recession. He started in 2008, and by 2009 he had two employees and a steady stream of new and returning customers.
In 2012, he experienced a power surge. Net income grew more than 700 percent from 2012 to 2013, and more than 1,000 percent from 2013 to 2014. His staff grew from two to seven and he has plans to open two more offices in the next 2-3 years.
That explosion of growth earned Current Home Technologies (http://www.currenthometechnologies.com) the title of Fastest Growing Company (years 1-5) at the 2014 SW Washington Business Growth Awards sponsored by the Vancouver Business Journal.
First step: Talking with business advisor
Remarkably, Current Home Technologies didn’t introduce products, go after new markets or change its business plan significantly. In fact, the first step was just talking with Buck Heidrick, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
The Washington SBDC (http://www.wsbdc.org) provides no cost, one-to-one advising for small business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business. The Washington SBDC is supported by Washington State University, the U.S. Small Business Administration and other institutions of higher education or economic development.
Curtis wasn’t necessarily looking for help when he met Heidrick at a Business Networking International meeting and the two started talking. That first conversation led to scheduled meetings during which they discussed Curtis’ vision for his company as well as specific goals and targets.
With more than 20 years’ experience selling, designing and installing low-voltage electrical systems, Curtis knew his business inside and out. But, like many small business owners, he was working more in the business, handling day-to-day responsibilities, than working on the business by planning for future growth.
Working the plan
Meeting with Heidrick helped Curtis take the time to reexamine business fundamentals – such as his company’s purpose, mission, vision, values, competitive advantage and brand promise – and target customers.
“It was apparent from the start that Buck’s intention was to give me the tools to allow me to be successful,” Curtis said. “He took the time to thoroughly understand my business in order to make recommendations that are relevant to my industry.”
Curtis said he has worked with business consultants in the past, but often the focus is on creating a plan and then the plan gets put in a drawer or on a shelf.
“Buck assigned the work for me to do on my own,” Curtis said. “I created the manuals, the growth chart and planned the restructuring.” Implementation was much easier, he said, because it was his plan and he was already invested in it.
Fair, sustainable pricing
They also pored over his financial statements to figure out why Curtis had not been able to build up a comfortable reserve.
“We seemed to be working awfully hard for what we were making,” Curtis said.
Heidrick did an industry analysis of what similar services cost in Washington and across the country and showed Curtis where he fit. (Near the bottom.) Then they talked about business sustainability. What was the true cost of the services he was providing if he wanted to make sure he had adequate revenue to compensate his employees, plan for future growth and safeguard his retirement?
“We weren’t charging enough,” Curtis said, smiling ruefully. “That was number one right there. That was the biggest thing.”
He said that by raising his prices just a little and increasing his marketing by a lot, sales went up and he saw an immediate improvement in his bottom line.
“I wanted to be fair, but I also wanted to be sustainable,” he said.
Integrated control of smart homes
Curtis and his staff specialize in creating customized, integrated systems that allow people to control just about any electronic device in the house with a tap, click or switch.
A “Good Night” button might do several things at once, including turning down the thermostat, turning off audio systems, dimming certain lights and shutting off others, setting the security alarm, activating a security camera and closing the garage door.
In a new home, Curtis said, there could be 1,000 different components that allow homeowners to control the environment from a keypad or mobile device such as a cellphone or tablet. Rather than having wires and control panels in several rooms, the growing trend is to have one closet where it all comes together and then various “user interfaces” where they make sense.
“There’s a lot going on in today’s smart home from audio, video, lighting, security, HVAC, etc., and it’s best if all these subsystems can be controlled and function together seamlessly,” he said. “That’s what it means to be integrated.”
Building relationships through service, trust
When people are shopping for appliances or cars or houses, they more or less know what they are looking for and simply search until they find it.
In Curtis’ business, that’s not usually the case. The world of low-voltage integration is expanding so quickly that many of the products and services he offers his customers are things the rest of us have never seen.
“There are more things that come and go than you can imagine,” he said, laughing. One reason for his company’s success, he said, is that employees vet each product and don’t recommend something just because it’s shiny and new.
“We engineer these designs and we install them and they work,” Curtis said. “We earn customers’ trust.”
At the same time, things do go wrong with technology. Customer service is a huge part of his business: “This business, like any business, is about relationships,” he said.
Current Home Technologies is not a “one and done type of business” he said, because as technology advances, clients come back. Or when clients move, they hire Curtis to wire the new house, too.
“We have clients on their third or fourth home,” he said.
Market becoming more mainstream
A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Curtis started his first company after he left the service in 1992. He did both regular electrical work as well as low-voltage work and created custom systems that integrated audio, lighting, home theaters, security and whatever else the client wanted.
When a competitor offered to buy him out, five or six years later, he took the deal. Over the next decade, he kept current with technology and worked for other people in sales and design. But in 2008, he decided to strike out on his own once again.
Working through the recession was tough, he said, but he has come out the other side stronger than ever. The market for integrated consumer electronics systems is growing, not just at the high end but in the middle as well, he said.
“I’ve been doing it for 20 years and it’s becoming more mainstream,” he said. “It’s not just a gimmick. It makes sense.”
Sort of like meeting with an SBDC advisor.